It was May 4, 2004, better known as the last playoff game for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Jeremy Roenick scored the overtime winner at the Air Canada Centre that night, catapulting the Philadelphia Flyers into the Eastern Conference final while banishing the Leafs into an enduring stint in the wilderness. Almost nine years to the day of that last defeat, the Leafs return to the ice of the postseason, set to clash with the Boston Bruins in what promises to be a testy first round series.
1. Scoring beyond Kessel, JVR & Lupul
Phil Kessel concluded a dominant 2013 with his 20th goal of the year and 10th in the final 10 games, the lone marker in a Jekyll and Hyde season-ending loss to Montreal. The question come playoff time is where the Leafs find goals beyond their perpetually underrated 25-year-old star, notably against the third-best defensive team in hockey.
Toronto finished the 48-game regular season as the sixth-highest scoring team in the National Hockey League, but in their final stumble to the postseason – four losses in six games – the offence usually came through Kessel, who had a hand in 10 of the final 17 Toronto goals (which includes an empty-netter from Jay McClement) or 58 percent of the attack.
Joffrey Lupul couldn't quite scale the scorching heights he reached earlier in the year, but still managed three goals and five points in seven April games, James van Riemsdyk chipping with four goals and nine points, second among forwards to Kessel.
Beyond that trio, it was slim pickings.
Second on the team in scoring with 44 points on the year, Nazem Kadri finished with one goal in April, managing only 22 shots in 12 games. Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, and Nik Kulemin joined him with one apiece in a disjointed final month.
Randy Carlyle noted this past week that "[i]t's going to be harder to score goals" in the postseason, so where beyond Kessel – who may have troubles of his own as detailed below – Lupul, and van Riemsdyk will his hockey club find offence?
After a hot-shot start, Kadri's returns diminished in the final stretch of the regular season (just five points in the last 12 games), Grabovski remained a lost force, MacArthur endured a 15-game goal drought and Kulemin offered other contributions but little offence. Can the detail of secondary scoring options emerge in the postseason when as Carlyle detailed "there's about a 20 percent difference in the defensive schemes, the way teams apply defence"?
The Leafs essentially became a one-line scoring attack in the final weeks of the season, a concern that heightened with first-line centre Tyler Bozak sidelined (more on that later). In Bozak's initial absence against Florida, Carlyle assembled a top line of Lupul, Kadri and Kessel, a trio that produced two goals against the Panthers but was generally quiet on the attack. In the season finale against the Canadiens two nights later the Leafs coach bumped Lupul off the line in favour of van Riemsdyk, likely in an effort to find offence from multiple units rather than just the one. A silent evening of one goal and 17 shots followed.
Postseason success often lies in the level of contributions from third and fourth units – no better example than the Bruins in 2011 – the likes of Grabovski, Leo Komarov, Jay McClement, Matt Frattin and even Joe Colborne and Ryan Hamilton needed for offence at some point. The issue could magnify further if Carlyle opts to assemble a brutish fourth line, one that could include both Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. Their inclusion would increase the offensive strain on the remaining three units.
The Leafs and Bruins both boast elite penalty kills meaning the battle is likely to be won at even-strength. Still as sturdy as they come defensively, Boston yielded only 75 goals five-on-five, the sixth-fewest in the NHL. Toronto meanwhile clocked with the fifth-highest total, 100 even-strength goals allowed.
Not only then will the Leafs need to find offence in various forms, they'll also need to out-defend a stingy opponent.
2. Kessel v. Chara
Scoring beyond Kessel will be magnified a step further if their star sniper continues to struggle against the team that drafted him or more specifically against the player who has completely owned him, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara.
Incredibly in 22 career games against Boston, Kessel has yet to score an even-strength goal, not one. In fact, he's scored just three times versus the Bruins, all three coming on the power-play, two in the very same game. Even in a banner year that saw him tally 52 points, good for seventh in league scoring, Kessel could not muster a single point against Boston, finishing with zero goals and zero assists in four games.
With his inhuman combination of reach, size, and agility, Chara has made life a nightmare for Kessel, Bruins coach Claude Julien expectedly religious with the matchup, thrusting the 6-foot-9 behemoth onto the ice anytime Kessel steps out, even for just a second. The cat-and-mouse game with Randy Carlyle will be especially fascinating to watch. Carlyle tried hard to keep Kessel away from Chara whenever possible this season, but Julien's insistence on the matchup made that task impossibly challenging.
All of which means that Kessel will simply have to find the means to elude his former teammate – not to mention arguably the best defensive forward in the NHL, Patrice Bergeron – or find help elsewhere (as detailed above).
3. The Bozak/Grabovski question
As one would expect at this time of year, Carlyle was guarded when it came the injury status of Tyler Bozak, only revealing that Bozak had an upper-body injury, was day-to-day and had suffered the injury in the final week of the season.
It's unclear if the 27-year-old will be available to begin the first round series against Boston. The domino effect of his absence, however, would be significant, a hint of which was seen in the final two regular season games.
While he's often maligned for what he's not – a big, prototypical number one centre – Bozak nevertheless plays a critical role for the Leafs, logging more ice-time than any Toronto forward (20:18) – in every situation – while assuming 38 per cent of his team's faceoffs, third only to Claude Giroux and Sidney Crosby.
As noted, it was Kadri who stepped into the void left by Bozak alongside Kessel, the combination producing at best, mixed results in just two games. The primary concern, however, for Carlyle likely isn't Kadri, but the void left by his ascendance in the lineup.
The untested Joe Colborne proved the primary benefactor, even lining up alongside Lupul and Kulemin in the regular season finale against Montreal. Colborne offered glimpses of potential, but it's clear that with 16 games of NHL experience, he is ill-equipped for a primary role in the postseason.
His brief promotion though underscored the dramatic loss of faith in Grabovski, who logged fewer than 15 minutes for the 10th time in 11 games against the Canadiens in the finale. Grabovski concluded April with just two points, a lost regular season finally put to bed.
Regardless, in Bozak's potential absence, the 29-year-old remains the best possible option (outside of Kadri that is) for increased responsibility. Frustrated at points with the defensive role he was thrust into this year, Grabovski endured the worst offensive season of his career, totaling just nine goals and 16 points. His two-way skill-set remains though and perhaps if paired with offensive talents – say Lupul and MacArthur – and dealt greater responsibilities, the confidence and flair of his formerly pesky force would re-emerge.
In light of their recent over-reliance on Kessel for production, the Leafs could use the four-time 20-goal man and his talents against the Bruins, even if Bozak proves healthy and available to play at the outset of the series.
4. Questions on D
The Leafs had only one constant on their defence this season, the combination of Mark Fraser and Cody Franson. The two first played together on January 29 and remained that way in every game for the remainder of the season.
As the year wore on their duties increased, the sizeable duo becoming Carlyle's second option on the back-end, typically matched up against opposing second lines. The shift in responsibility proved challenging. Tagged to face third lines earlier in the year, Fraser and Franson enjoyed success, but the matchup against more potent opponents often proved difficult, their lacking foot speed at times highlighted. Carlyle had no choice but to engage the pair in greater duties, what with the struggles of John-Michael Liles, Jake Gardiner, Michael Kostka and to a lesser degree Ryan O'Byrne. Fraser and Franson were and are his best option beyond the top pair of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson.
With Boston on deck in the first round, the duo will likely be tagged with opposing the Bruins menacing second unit of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton – provided he returns from injury. How they manage against the size and skill that line presents could have a significant impact on the series, especially if Phaneuf and Gunnarsson have trouble slowing the Bruins top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin.
Beyond that, Carlyle will have a lingering decision to make on his third pair.
In the final two regular season games, he picked Kostka to play with Liles, doing so at the expense of O'Byrne, who sat as a healthy scratch. The Leafs were challenged in their efforts to move the puck effectively out of the defensive zone in their final stumble to the postseason, very likely a factor in Kostka's reinsertion into the lineup. But will that dynamic continue against the nasty physical element the Bruins present or will Carlyle opt for the size and grit of the former Avalanche defender? Be it Liles and Kostka or Liles and O'Byrne, Toronto's third pair will likely be forced to take on Jaromir Jagr, who strung together nine points in 11 games with Boston.
Quite simply, the task of slowing the Bruins will be tall.
5. Which Leafs team shows up?
The matchup has been rather one-sided in recent years. Boston holds a dominant record of 26-6-5 in their past 37 games against Toronto, including wins in 11 of the past 13 meetings. Despite dropping three of the four matchups with the Bruins this year, however, the Leafs can at least claim to have played their division rival tough, the trio of defeats essentially tight one-goal hockey games.
The question is whether that squad shows up.
Stumbling into their first playoff appearance in nine years, the Leafs dropped four of their final six games, rarely resembling the feisty, aggressive unit that managed to pick up points in 13 of 14 games in late March and early April.
Carlyle has preached that his Leafs are a "skating hockey club" and thus must revert back to the pushy, physical style that garnered them success. The glue of that success is found in the effectiveness and aggressiveness of the forecheck, which proved hit-or-miss in recent weeks. Because they had trouble sustaining pressure down the stretch – hurt additionally by difficulty moving the puck – the Leafs endured lengthy spells defending in the defensive zone, highlighted by a string of one-sided shot charts.
Can they return to the structured "template" Carlyle managed to impose earlier in the year?
If not, the burden James Reimer is forced to shoulder will only increase.
The 25-year-old enjoyed a stellar 2013 campaign, but was under mounting fire from opponents in the final couple weeks, an average of 34-plus shots against in his last seven starts. And while he managed to steal a few victories – notably a 32-save shutout against New Jersey and 49-save barrage against Ottawa – he cannot be expected to do so on a nightly basis, especially opposite a team as stingy as the Bruins.
Boston endured an equal stumble into the postseason as did their first round opponent, but unlike Toronto they boast a wealth of Stanley Cup experience, their combination of brute physical strength and elusive skill an imposing challenge.
The Leafs have a fighter's chance if they can revert back to "template". If not, this could be a very short series.